WASHINGTON - In 1994, Washington state was ground zero for a Republican revolution that launched GOP control of Capitol Hill for a dozen years.
The state’s congressional delegation went from 8-1 Democratic to 7-2 Republican. Among the Democrats who lost was Rep. Tom Foley, the first sitting House speaker to lose since the Civil War.
In the wake of recent GOP victories in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia, Democrats and Republicans in Washington state are wondering whether history will repeat itself.
Democrats are haunted by 1994, and their motto is “Not Again in 2010.” Republicans are hoping they will again ride a wave of public anger over health care and other issues to majorities in the House and the Senate.
Many political observers say it’s too early to talk of a rerun of 1994, though they don’t rule it out.
“It’s too soon to tell whether it will be another 1994 in Washington state or around the country,” said Stu Rothenberg, a veteran political analyst who tracks political campaigns in all 50 states.
In an off-year election, the party in power generally loses seats. But the critical question is whether Democrats will lose enough seats to lose control of the Senate, the House or both.
For now, Republicans have successfully nationalized the election, making it a referendum on the economy, health care and climate change. In 1994, the GOP did it with its “Contract With America,” a strategy some Republicans are considering reviving.
Just as voters in ’94 were disenchanted with first-term President Bill Clinton and an entrenched Democratic Congress, polls today show people are increasingly angry about the direction of the nation, and President Barack Obama’s ratings and those of congressional Democrats have fallen.
Yet the biggest difference between now and 1994 is that Democrats have 10 months to turn it around. In 1994, they had only weeks. Foley didn’t see a problem in 1994 until Washington state’s open primary in September, when he received barely one-third of the vote.
“No one saw Foley was in trouble in 1994,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report. “But it is a lot harder now with the Internet for voter anger to fly under the radar screen. We already have a sense this will be a difficult year for Democrats.”
Washington has become a solidly Democratic state in recent years. A Republican presidential candidate hasn’t won the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. The state Legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic. Democrats hold both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and six of the nine U.S. House seats.
But it is also a state where it is unwise to count Republicans out. The state’s attorney general and secretary of state are Republicans. Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire won election to her first term in 2004 by 133 votes.
Democrats in the state are nervous, but confident.
“It’s no secret there is blood in the water,” said Rick Desimone, former chief of staff to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who now works for a consulting/lobbyist firm. “It’s going to be a potentially tough year. Democrats are going to have to run hard.”
Dwight Pelz, chairman of the Washington state Democratic Party, said Democrats aren’t taking anything for granted.
“We are very realistic,” Pelz said.
Republicans say it’s not just wishful thinking to believe a replay of 1994 could be shaping up in Washington state and around the nation.
“I think the news is better now than it was in 1994,” said Luke Esser, GOP chairman of Washington state. “No one was saying in January of 1994 that there would be seven Republican congressmen from Washington state. The promise and the opportunity (this year) seem to be the same scale.”
MURRAY AVOIDING CHALLENGE
But so far, Republicans have been unable to attract top-tier challengers for such races as Murray’s bid for a fourth term.
“You might have a big wave, but you need a surfer to catch it,” said Chris Vance, a former Washington state GOP chairman who is now doing consulting. “In 1994, we had serious candidates. That’s a big challenge for Republicans now.”
Right now, Murray’s Republican challengers include a motivational speaker, a former professional football player, a chiropractor, a physician, a small-business owner and an energy trader/real estate agent.
Since their win in the Massachusetts senatorial race, Republicans have turned up the pressure on GOP Rep. Dave Reichert to challenge Murray. Reichert is a former King County sheriff who attracted national attention for capturing the Green River killer.
“Dave is not one to shut doors on any opportunity, but right now he is focused on reaching solutions on health care and jump-starting the economy,” said Abigail Shilling, a Reichert spokeswoman.
Analysts say Murray currently isn’t in any trouble.
“Murray is in better shape than ever before,” Duffy said. “If Reichert announced, Murray would have a race on her hands.”
ROCKING THE HOUSE
On the House side, a seat that opened up when six-term Democratic Rep. Brian Baird decided not to seek re-election is considered the Republicans’ best opportunity for a pickup.
The 3rd always has been a swing district. This season, the southwest Washington congressional district has vocal members of the Tea Party movement and includes Clark County, which has the highest unemployment in the state at more than 14 percent. The field is crowded on both sides, and the national parties are expected to pour money into the race.
In northwest Washington, Republicans think they have a chance at knocking off five-term Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen of Lake Stevens. They have fielded what they consider a strong candidate, Snohomish County Councilman John Koster, and the national party has been attacking Larsen repeatedly and begun automated phone calls in his district.
But Larsen won with 62 percent of the vote in 2008 and defeated his apparent opponent this year by 3 percentage points in 2000.
As for the rest of the Democratic House members, Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma has a stronger potential challenger than he has faced in years in the form of Pierce County Councilman Dick Muri – but observers say it would likely take a major Republican tide to unseat the incumbent. The same is true of Rep. Jay Inslee of Bainbridge Island. Analysts consider long-serving Reps. Norm Dicks of Belfair and Jim McDermott of Seattle to be shoo-ins for re-election.
TEA PARTY WILD CARD
Of the state’s three Republicans in Congress, Reichert could be looking at another tough race. The Auburn congressman is facing Microsoft millionaire Suzan DelBene, who as of last fall had twice as much money in her campaign account but has been mostly self-financing.
The state’s two other Republicans, Reps. Doc Hastings of Pasco and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Deer Lake, come from safe Eastern Washington districts.
One wild card this year is the Tea Party movement, with its talk of “Sovereignty: The 10th Amendment” and “Put Ronnie on the Rock,” a reference to putting Ronald Reagan’s face on Mount Rushmore. Organizers say there are no plans of turning the movement into an actual political party and that it will remain loosely organized.
“I am a little leery of politicians, even conservative ones,” said Ken Morse, an organizer of the Olympia Tea Party. “I want to keep our nonpartisan status alive.”
Republicans hope to attract Tea Party supporters and downplay concerns that the movement could move their party too far to the right.
“We have more to gain than lose by working with the Tea Party,” GOP Chairman Esser said.
Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008